Uncovering rail pioneers’ stories
Back in 2009, my husband, Don Watts, and I decided to take a jaunt through time courtesy of the West Coast Wilderness Railway in Tasmania. Picture this: the whistle of a heritage steam locomotive serenading us as we settled in for a journey into the past. We were on a mission—ready to dig into the tales of gutsy pioneers who once called the wild stretch between Queenstown and Strahan home.
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Chronicles of the West Coast Wilderness Railway
Our adventure began at Queenstown station, where we stepped aboard the Woodcutters Carriage. The plush upholstered seating and the promise of wine and nibbles set the stage for a luxurious experience. As the wheels started turning, we found ourselves transported not just by the train, but also by stories of the past 200 years.
Our first stop, Lynchford, a bustling frontier town in the 1880s, had faded away by the 1920s, leaving memories of a bygone era. We disembarked and treaded on the same soil that gold prospectors had once hoped would yield fortunes.
The Queen Hotel, a two-story weatherboard structure, loomed beside the station, witnessing the comings and goings of timber-cutters. Its kerosene lamps once illuminated the lively conversations of those seeking respite after a day’s toil. The town’s fate took a turn with the introduction of hydroelectricity in 1914, marking the end of the woodcutters’ era and the beginning of Lynchford’s decline.
As the train ascended above the King River Gorge, the landscape revealed the challenges those who built the railway faced. The construction started in 1894 and demanded resilience from the labourers who battled the unforgiving terrain and relentless weather. Rainfall of up to 150 inches (3800 mm) a year, hidden gullies, and rising rivers tested the mettle of the workers. Their camps had to perch on high ground, a strategic move against the unpredictable whims of the King River.
For almost seven decades, the West Coast Wilderness Railway was more than just the scenic route it is today. It was the Lyell mining district’s lifeline, ensuring copper ore transportation from Queenstown to the coast for global markets. The return journey brought essential supplies like timber and later, coke, for the smelter fires. The wagons also carried the pulse of daily life—milk, newspapers, mail, and, in a macabre twist, even the departed.
Tracing Tasmania’s rich history
Our journey on the West Coast Wilderness Railway was more than a scenic tour; it was a glimpse into Tasmania’s rich history. Lynchford’s rise and fall, the perseverance of those who built the railway, and its role in sustaining the mining district unfolded before us like pages of a captivating novel. As we disembarked in Strahan, I couldn’t help but feel a profound connection to the pioneers and workers whose spirits still lingered in the hills and valleys of Tasmania. The West Coast Wilderness Railway, now a tourist attraction, stands as a living monument to the resilience and tenacity of those who shaped the history of Tasmania’s untamed land.
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More photos from our West Coast Wilderness Railway adventure
- With thanks to West Coast Wilderness Railway for generously hosting us for this journey.
- If you enjoyed this blog, you might also like my fiction story Murder on a Runaway Train.
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